Conference panel defines interfaith for modern era

Rabbi Mark Winer believes Jews and Muslims will eventually make peace. Why? Because, he says, if the Catholic Church gave up centuries of enmity and learn to embrace Jews, anybody can.

“Fifty years ago no one would have imagined diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel,” he said.

Winer spoke Feb. 9 at a panel titled “Interfaith: Is There Faith In Interfaith?” held at a convention of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in San Francisco.

Discussing interfaith issues at the WUPJ conference are (above, from left) Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, Rosanne Levitt and Karen Kushner; at right is panelist Rabbi Mark Winer. photo/dan pine

The panel addressed two aspects of interfaith issues: Jewish community relations with non-Jewish communities, and interfaith marriage. Based on the discussion, the two realms do not overlap much.

The American-born Winer retired last year after 12 years as senior rabbi at the West London Synagogue, the largest Reform congregation in England. Because the synagogue is located in a neighborhood now largely populated by Muslim immigrants, Winer had to forge working relationships with local imams.

It wasn’t always easy, but he found more common ground than some might have expected.

“Muslims are closet modernists,” he says. “Every synagogue should go out of its way to reach out to local Muslim entities. We should consider it a commandment from God to work out the clash of civilizations.”

He referred several times to Catholic-Jewish relations, which historically have been dreadful but have improved dramatically over the last 40 years, especially under the papacy of the late John Paul II.

Today, he said, Catholic leaders seek out Jewish counterparts to help improve interfaith relations. Winer recounted a visit to the Vatican in the late 1990s, during which a cardinal said to him, “You guys are better at this than we are,” referring to building bridges between communities.

“People naturally expect us to take the lead,” he said of Progressive Judaism.

Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, vice president of philanthropy for the WUPJ, echoed Winer’s call for outreach to non-Jewish communities, no matter how hard. “We put up road blocks when we make icons of our religious traditions,” he said. “We need to recognize it’s about human relationships.”

Two other panelists, both longtime Bay Area interfaith activists, dealt with human relationships on a smaller scale.

Rosanne Levitt and Karen Kushner specialize in helping interfaith couples feel welcomed into the Jewish community. That, too, isn’t always easy.

Levitt has been doing outreach since 1986, leading informal discussion groups to help couples and prospective couples navigate the sometimes tricky waters of interfaith marriage.

“We’re not encouraging interfaith marriage, but responding to reality,” Levitt said of her work. “We need to take couples where they are and give them time.”

She noted big changes within Jewish society. Whereas intermarriage was once a brand of shame, today most non-Orthodox Jewish families care more about whether children from the marriage will be raised Jewish.

Karen Kushner, chief education officer of, agreed with Levitt, citing a 50 percent global interfaith marriage rate.

“It’s a numbers game,” she said. “Our birthrate is low. We either welcome [interfaith families] or our numbers shrink. Our goal should not be in-marriage, but engagement in Jewish life.”

One member of the audience, Leon Charikar, a Reform Jew from Leicester, England, related to both topics the panel addressed. He noted that his city of 500,000, located about 100 miles north of London, is one of Britain’s most ethnically diverse.

While that has created tension between Jews and some communities, it also has brought others together. When one elderly Jewish man feared for his safety walking to and from synagogue, Muslim elders took it upon themselves to escort him.

“England is a very safe, democratic country,” he said after the panel discussion. “Yes, there are extremists, but the debate is about what causes that extremism and how we address it.”

As for interfaith marriage, he said the issue flares up in England as well. “It’s a similar debate,” Charikar noted.

While interfaith marriage does pose problems for the Jewish community in terms of assimilation and potential loss of Jewish identity, it also represents a kind of success for Jews in a society that once shunned them.

“Marrying a Jew,” said Kushner, “is considered an ‘up’ marriage.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at